The Importance (and Apparent Decline) of Mystery in Movies

Flashbacks, prequels, and spin-offs... are all these things taking the sense of mystery out of movies?

“Apparently, she saw an alien once…”

The really effective thing about the Alien movies – particularly the first two – is their sense of mystery. Just as Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s films are united by their intense use of shadow, meaning the title creatures are glimpsed only in part, so Alien and Aliens suggest huge chunks of backstory with a throwaway line or a solitary scene.

Looking again at the 1979 original, it’s evident how pared back its plot is, especially compared to 2016’s crop of summer films. The assorted tensions and histories of Alien’s central characters are hinted at but never expressly shown, meaning we’re allowed to fill in the blanks ourselves. We don’t need acres of exposition to help us realize that there’s a weird tension between Ripley, Dallas, and Lambert – we can sense their difficult history just from the way the three of them interact with each other.

Likewise in Aliens, the space-faring Colonial Marines are simply brought into the movie with only the briefest of introductions. Cameron makes no attempt to explain who they are or why the Weyland Yutani corporation assembled them – he trusts his audience to draw their own conclusions. Hudson’s oft-quoted line, “Is this a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug-hunt” suggests all kinds of possibilities. The Nostromo’s fateful visit to LV-426 aside, has humanity encountered aliens before? Hudson’s aside suggests that they have, and further, that one of the marines’ common tasks is to go around the galaxy, gathering alien specimens for the corporation. 

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Think back to the sarcastic exchange between Vasquez and Hudson (“Apparently, she saw an alien once”), and the possibility that the marines are used to encountering extraterrestrial life of one kind or another seems quite high. Certainly, Weyland-Yutani is aware of the existence of the alien decades earlier, since they’d very deliberately directed the Nostromo to investigate it.

Thanks to Prometheus, of course, we now know this is the case. In that film, set decades before the events of Alien, Weyland-Yutani’s fossil of a CEO, Peter Weyland, sends a research team off into the depths of space in the hope of discovering the secret of life on Earth. What begins as a search for ancient gods ends, predictably, in a welter of tentacles and black goo – suggesting that the works of H.P. Lovecraft went out of print long before the good ship Prometheus set sail for the planetoid LV-223.

Whether you liked Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe or not, it’s arguable that there’s a glaring problem with Prometheus – or, in fact, any movie that aims to expand on the “unanswered questions” in a given story. Prometheus may have expanded the scope of the Alien franchise beyond that of its sci-fi horror roots – there are elements of Scott’s movie that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Star Trek story – but in the process, it also makes patent certain things that were once left to our imaginations. 

The space-jockey - shall we know his life and loves in Alien 0...?

In interviews around the time of Prometheus’ release, Scott talked enthusiastically about delving into the mystery of “the guy in the chair” – the fossilized alien carcass glimpsed in Alien, previously known to previous fans as the Space Jockey. Prometheus, Scott pledged, would reveal the motivations and origins behind this huge and weird-looking race of creatures.

On the face of it, this sounded like exciting stuff; what Alien fanatic wouldn’t want to see how those organic, U-shaped vessels fly, or discover where its pilot came from? And yet, while Prometheus gave us those things and a bit more besides, the movie also did something else: it served to short-circuit the very thing that made the Space Jockey so fascinating – its sense of mystery. As of 2012, we didn’t have to imagine what the Space Jockey was or where he came from; Prometheus explained outright that he’s a bald bodybuilder in a bony spacesuit. 

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In an age of multi-strand franchises, spin-offs, and movie universe building, it could be that one of the major problems mainstream cinema faces is a lack of mystery and a tendency to over-explain. Not that things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe are to blame for this growing epidemic of demystification; George Lucas spent three movies explaining the gloomy history behind Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader. Again, we no longer had to imagine what the young Anakin might have been like and what adventures he got into; Lucas revealed that the future Lord Vader was a sulky Hayden Christensen.

In the years since the Star Wars prequels, we’ve seen several major films where over-explanation has acted like a pair of lead boots around their respective plots. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seemed so preoccupied with the task of introducing its roster of villains – all the better to set up Sony’s once-planned spin-offs, such as Sinister Six – that it became tangled up in its own knotty web. Last year’s Suicide Squad featured so many flashbacks – some of them establishing the same characters twice – that its story took an eternity to get going.

Had Aliens been written in the style of Suicide Squad, every character, from Corporal Hicks to the luckless Private Spunkmeyer, would have wound up with their own flashback explaining exactly why they joined the marines. We would have met Carter Burke while he was still a graduate, filling in the application form for a job at Weyland-Yutani. Bishop would have been shown emerging from the synthetic human factory, the price tag still dangling from his ear. 

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with multi-strand stories or complex narratives, but they take skill and care to construct. When a movie with a large roster of characters goes wrong, it can add up to a muddled, frustrating whole. Indeed, some of last year’s major films have felt so overblown that, when a movie as stripped-down and economical as Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi drama Midnight Special come along, they feel quite striking by comparison.

Sticking to the old “arrive late, leave early” screenwriting adage, Nichols’ film starts partway into its narrative. The two leads, a father played by Michael Shannon and a cop played by Joel Edgerton, have already seized a young boy with special powers from a weird cult, and so we’re left to figure out the characters’ relationships with each other as the story unfolds. We learn bits and pieces about their histories and motivations from their body language and their muttered asides; Nichols trusts his audience to keep up and gradually work things out, and this in turn increases our engagement because we’re actively participating in understanding what’s going on rather than passively observing as events are spelled out to us.

As Nichols himself said when we spoke to him earlier this year, “It’s a bit of a puzzle that is working itself out right in front of you. It involves the audience.” 

Nichols rightly argues that mystery is vital to storytelling, and that it’s something in danger of being lost – particularly in expensive, mainstream movies.

“[Mystery] is important in storytelling at large,” Nichols said. “We’ve gotten to a point where it costs so much money to make a movie that directors and filmmakers feel they have to make sure that everybody gets it. And that’s an unfortunate development, I think, in a lot of narratives floating around in the film industry. I think it’s good for an audience to be challenged. I think, too, there’s such a thing as a diet of the mind, and the more we make films that challenge people, the more they get out of it.”

Also in 2016, Rogue One was the first in a planned series of Star Wars spin-offs designed to flesh out and expand the franchise’s universe on the silver screen. The projects we currently know about include a Han Solo: the younger years story and a Boba Fett movie. We’re looking forward to all of these films, as you might expect, but we can’t help feeling there’s a certain level of risk attached to them too. 

Part of what make Han Solo and Boba Fett such popular characters is the sense of history their characters carried around with them. Harrison Ford’s scars and worldly cynicism hinted of a life of dodgy dealings and near-misses. Boba Fett’s battered armor spoke volumes about the bounty hunter’s violent past.

For audiences both young and old, it’s fun to imagine what Chewie and Han might have gotten up to before they met Luke and Obi-Wan, or to make up their own missions for Boba Fett to complete in their heads.

This is the beauty of stories that leave gaps or merely suggest things that might have happened in the past: they give the impression of lives lived outside the scope of the screen. There’s nothing wrong with backstories, flashbacks, origin tales, prequels and spin-offs, but at the same time, their overuse could also serve to undermine one of the things that is great about cinema: its ability to fire our imaginations.

This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.